Practicing Science: What does it mean and how can we do it in the classroom?

Even though there are some aspects of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS, 2013) that I care for less (mainly the overly vague earth science performance expectations/disciplinary core ideas and their overemphasis on current hot-button topics), I am generally a supporter, especially of the idea that students should be engaged in the practices of sciences.  However, as I’ve listened to other folks extol the virtues of the NGSS over the past couple of years, I’ve come to realize that the NGSS mean different things to different people.  The NGSS come to us in the form of a complex document, and it’s to be expected that people will tease out different points that resonate most with them.  But sometimes the differences are not only in emphasis, but in kind and meaning.  Not everyone sees the practices of science in the same way that I do.

I see that the purpose of practicing science is to learn how to do science, to understand how science has been done in the past, and to become able to connect the ideas derived through science to the underlying observations on which they are based.  However, there is a tendency among some people to see the practices of science as a teaching methodology, an approach to instruction that helps students understand and remember the concepts better.

This is not unlike the turn-of-interpretation that undermined the precursor to the NGSS, the National Science Education Standards (1996).  That document emphasized the importance of inquiry in the classroom, a goal not unlike the practices of science in the NGSS.  In 1996, I was a relatively new faculty member at Minnesota State University Moorhead and had recently spent seven years doing postdoctoral research into the chemistry of magma.  The idea of learning science through doing science—inquiry—resonated with me.  One of my colleagues agreed with me, but then proceeded to explain his belief that inquiry helps students remember the ideas better because we all remember what we do better than what we are merely told.  I realized that his interpretation of ‘inquiry’ was that it was a hands-on, brains-on way of making the concepts more memorable—a teaching methodology.  Its purpose was to aid learning of the same ideas that he had taught previously, not to shift the focus of learning onto the sometimes-messy and confusing practice of science itself.

I think that there is some risk that the central new idea of the NGSS—the importance of the practices of science—will be ‘interpreted away’ in a similar fashion.

Here are a couple of questions to chew on:  What does it mean to do an investigation as a practice of science?  Does following a well-tested experiment from a lab book count as engaging students in the practice of science or are students merely copying the science that someone else has practiced for them?

These are not simple questions to answer.  Allowing students to pursue an investigation without any structured guidance will not likely go well (unless you allow them a few centuries, which is how long it’s taken scientists to figure things out).  On the other hand, if students have no room for scientifically-creative contribution, then it can be reasonably argued that they aren’t practicing science.

In real science practice, inventing the experiment and then figuring out what the results mean are the main challenges—quite different from following a recipe lab and then comparing results to the ‘right’ answer from the book.  How can we engage students in an investigation where they have meaningful input into the experimental design and learn how to interpret their results on the basis of the results themselves rather than by comparison to a teacher answer key?

One example of my efforts to do this is given in the teacher resources recently published at http://earthscienceissues.net/Fiction/Breaking_the_Ice_Teacher_Resourses.htm.  Check it out!

While you are there, you might also read the short story for the classroom on which the resources are based, found at http://earthscienceissues.net/fiction_for_the_classroom.

So, what are your thoughts?  What do you think it means to practice science, and how can we engage students in doing it? What activities have you developed or found to use?

Dr. C.

Russ Colson, coauthor of the NSTA Press book Learning to Read the Earth and Sky

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